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Destin Daniel Cretton talks directing Warner’s Just Mercy

By Iain Blair

An emotionally powerful and thought-provoking true story, Just Mercy is the latest film from award-winning filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle, Short Term 12), who directed the film from a screenplay he co-wrote. Based on famed lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which details his crusade to defend, among others, wrongly accused prisoners on death row, it stars Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.

The story starts when, after graduating from Harvard, Stevenson (Jordan) — who had his pick of lucrative jobs — instead heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson).

One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian (Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence. In the years that follow, Stevenson becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings as well as overt racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds — and the system — stacked against them.

This case becomes the main focus of the film, whose cast also includes Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson, a fellow prisoner who also sits on death row; Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, whose pivotal testimony against Walter McMillian is called into question; Rafe Spall as Tommy Chapman, the DA who is fighting to uphold Walter’s conviction and sentence; O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Anthony Ray Hinton, another wrongly convicted death row inmate whose cause is taken up by Stevenson; and Karan Kendrick as Walter’s wife, Minnie McMillian.

Cretton’s behind-the-scenes creative team included DP Brett Pawlak, co-writer Andrew Lanham, production designer Sharon Seymour, editor Nat Sanders and composer Joel P. West, all of whom previously collaborated with the director on The Glass Castle.

Destin Daniel Crettin

I spoke with the director about making the film, his workflow and his love of post.

When you read Brian’s book, did you feel compelled to take this on?
I did. His voice and the way he tells the story about these characters, who seem so easy to judge at first. Then he starts peeling off all the layers, and the way he uses humor in certain areas and devastation in others. Somehow it still makes you feel hopeful and inspired to do something about all the injustice – all of it just hit me so hard, and I felt I had to be involved in it some way.

Did you work very closely with him on the film?
I did. Before we even began writing a word, we went to meet him in Montgomery, and he introduced us to the real Anthony Ray Hinton and a bunch of lawyers working on cases. Brian was with us through the whole writing process, filling in the blanks and helping us piece the story together. We did a lot of research, and we had the book, but it obviously couldn’t include everything. Brian gave us all the transcripts of all the hearings, and a lot of the lines were taken directly from those.

This is different from most other courtroom dramas, as the trial’s already happened when the movie begins. What sort of film did you set out to make?
We set out to make the book in as compelling a way as possible. And it’s a story about this young lawyer who’s trying to convince the system and state they made a terrible mistake, with all the ups and downs, and just how long it takes him to succeed. That’s the drama.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
Telling a very intense, true story about people, many of whom are still alive and still doing the work they were doing then. So accuracy was a huge thing, and we all really felt the burden and responsibility to get it right. I felt it more so than any film I’ve ever done because I respect Brian’s work so much. We’re also telling stories about people who were very vulnerable.

Trying to figure out how to tell a narrative that still moved at the right pace and gave you an emotional ride, but which stayed completely accurate to the facts and to a legal process that moves incredibly slowly was very challenging. A big moment for me were when Brian first saw the film and gave me a big hug and thank you; he told me it was not for how he was portrayed, but for how we took care of his clients. That was his big concern.

What did Jamie and Michael bring to their roles?
They’ve been friends for a long time, so they already had this great natural chemistry, and they were able to play through scenes like two jazz musicians and bring a lot of stuff that wasn’t there on the page.

I heard you actually shot in the south. How tough was the shoot?
Filming in some of the real locations really helped. We were able to shoot in Montgomery — such as the scenes where Brian’s doing his morning jogs, the Baptist church where MLK Jr. was the pastor, and then the cotton fields and places where Walter and his family actually lived. Being there and feeling the weight of history was very important to the whole experience. Then we shot the rest of the film in Atlanta.

Where did you post?
All in LA on the Warner lot.

Do you like the post process?
I love post and I hate it (laughs). And it depends on whether you’re finding a solution to a problem or you’re realizing you have a big problem. Post, of course, is where you make the film and where all the problems are exposed… the problems with all the choices I made on set. Sometimes things are working great, but usually it’s the problems you’re having to face. But working with a good post team is so fulfilling, and you’re doing the final rewrite, and we solved so many things in post on this.

Talk about editing with your go-to Nat Sanders, who got an Oscar nom for his work (with co-editor Joi McMillon) on Moonlight and also cut If Beale Street Could Talk.
Nat wasn’t on set. He began cutting material here in LA while we shot on location in Atlanta and Alabama, and we talked a lot on the phone. He did the first assembly which was just over three hours long. All the elements were there but shaping all the material and fine-tuning it all took nearly a year as we went through every scene, talking them out.

Finding the correct emotional ride and balance was a big challenge, as this has so many emotional highs and lows and you can easily tire an audience out. We had to cut some storylines that were working, but we were sending people on another down when they needed something lighter. The other part of it was performance, and you can craft so much of that in the edit; our leads gave us so many takes and options to play with. Dealing with that is one of Nat’s big strengths. Both of us are meticulous, and we did a lot of test screenings and kept making adjustments.

Writer Iain Blair (left) and director Destin Daniel Crettin.

Nat and I both felt the hardest scene to cut and get right was Herb’s execution scene, because of the specific tone needed. If you went too far in one direction, it felt too much, but if you went too far the other way, it didn’t quite hit the emotional beat it needed. So that took a lot of time, playing around with all the cross-cutting and the music and sound to create the right balance.

All period films need VFX. What was entailed?
Crafty Apes did them, and we did a lot of fixes, added period stuff and did a lot of wig fixes — more than you’d think (laughs). We weren’t allowed to shoot at the real prison, so we had to create all the backdrops and set extensions for the death row sequences.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music.
It’s always huge for me, and I’ve worked with my composer, Joel, and supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Onnalee Blank, who was half of the sound team, since the start. For both of them, it was all about finding the right tone to create just the right amount of emotion that doesn’t overdo it, and Joel wrote the score in a very stripped-down way and then got all these jazz musicians to improvise along with the score.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
That’s huge too, and we did it at Light Iron with colorist Ian Vertovec. He’s worked with my DP on almost every project I’ve done, and he’s so good at grading and giving you a very subtle palette.

What’s next?
We’re currently on preproduction on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, featuring Marvel’s first Asian superhero. It’s definitely a change of pace after this.